Synergy Bias: Conglomerates and Promotion in the News

By Williams, Dmitri | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Synergy Bias: Conglomerates and Promotion in the News


Williams, Dmitri, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


As media conglomerates have grown rapidly in size and scope in recent years, scholars and critics have worried about the independence of news divisions. The fear is chiefly that traditional journalistic values will suffer if they conflict with the profitability of the larger parent corporation. In response, this paper examines whether large corporations with national news outlets influence the delivery of the news. Such influence could take one of two forms: removing stories that are thought to be detrimental to the corporation, or the placement of stories that are thought to be helpful to the corporation. While critically oriented scholars have uncovered anecdotal evidence of this first type of offense (Herman & Chomsky, 1988; Lafayette, 1998; Lee & Solomon, 1990), systematic measurement and analysis remains elusive. It is possible to measure the second type of offense, the unwarranted placement of non-news items within the news product helpful to the corporation, without resorting to anecdote. The history of "gatekeeper" studies teaches us that what may once have seemed arbitrary or subjective in the practice of placing or removing stories (e.g., White's "Mr. Gates" study, 1950) is often found to be systematic (McQuail, 1994; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996; Snider, 1967). Such placement might be seen as a result of three types of influence within a large conglomerate: influence across product lines, influence within media divisions, or influence from advertisers. This study focuses on the first two, or what McAllister (2002) characterizes as "plugola" in news.

This paper explores such corporate behavior, assumed to be the result of an increasingly synergistic form of corporate structure. It evaluates whether or not conglomerate media and non-media holdings might predict both the kinds of stories a network will run and the way in which it will run them. Research on one other medium, newspapers, has shown conflicting evidence of ownership's influence on content (Coulsen & Hansen, 1995; Donohue, Olien, & Tichenor, 1985; Lacy, 1991, Lacy & Fico, 1990), and paid attention to the effects of private and public ownership models on content (Blankenberg, 1982; Blankenberg, 1983; Thrift, 1977). While there has been research into the relationship between ownership and programming for television (see, for example, Anderson, 1972; Baldridge, 1967; Nestvold, 1973), to date there has been no published systematic research specifically examining the relationship between the conglomeration of integrated firms and news content on television. To qualify, this study is exploratory and the results are not intended to generalize across time. It asks basic research questions to see if the phenomenon in question is actually present. The presence of the phenomenon must be established before more targeted studies establish generalizability. It also proceeds with the assumption that the press should operate in a socially responsible manner. These assumptions draw from the Hutchins Commission's 1947 report (Bates, 1995) and Petersen's notable chapter "The Social Responsibility Theory of the Press" (Siebert, 1973).

We begin with an inherent contradiction in both print and televised newsgathering: it seeks to be a nonbusiness-oriented and fair dispenser of the news, and yet like any other for-profit industry it has payrolls, revenues, and often stock values (Schudson, 1978). Thus, the influences on the process of gathering and reporting news are theorized to come from a variety of sources. Shoemaker and Reese (1996) conceptualize these influences on content as coming from five levels: ideological, extramedial, organizational, media routines, and individuals (p. 141). This study is concerned with influences at the organizational level that, in the words of Shoemaker and Reese, have a "pervasive, if not readily identifiable, effect on media content" (p. 125). They note that organization charts of the major media outlets show that those charged with editorial quality goals eventually report to someone charged with economic goals. …

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